A French helicopter gunship was downed and the commander of a helicopter unit was killed during air raids Jan. 11 that successfully halted the southerly advance of al-Qaida-backed terrorists in Mali, according to senior French military officials.
Dubbed Operation Serval, the intervention in support of France's former West African colony began Friday afternoon in response to an urgent request for assistance from Mali's president.
“The situation was serious and it degraded rapidly,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said during a press conference in Paris Jan. 12. “The terrorists were advancing toward the south, taking advantage of the fact that international assistance, which had been agreed to by the African Union, European Union and the United Nations, was slow in arriving.”
France "had to act,” Le Drian said, adding that the security of the region, and particularly of France and Europe, is at stake. “Having a terrorist state on our borders is unacceptable. We had to react before it was too late to put in the international assistance as foreseen by the UN and African nations. We are determined to stop this.”
Le Drian said the effort, a strictly bilateral operation between France and Mali, had three objectives: “To stop the jihadist offensive, to stabilize the government of Mali by protecting it against the terrorist advance, and to protect French and other European citizens in the combat zone.”
He said the operation was initiated based on French intelligence, which had detected a concentration of vehicles that suggested a major offensive was at hand.
Following tactical support to the Malian government in the preceding days, French President Francois Hollande okayed the use of air forces Jan. 11 to target a column of terrorists moving south.
“This was a helicopter raid that began at 4 pm yesterday Paris time,” he said, adding that French units totaling several hundred soldiers were deployed earlier to Bamako to assure the safety of the 5,000 French citizens in the country.
The air raid was supported by two Aerospatiale Gazelle helicopter gunships equipped with 20mm cannons and HOT missiles from the army's 4th combat helicopter regiment, which destroyed four enemy vehicles and forced the militants to retreat. It was unclear whether the Gazelles were equipped with the Viviane thermal imagery system.
“They were stopped and then they retreated,” Le Drian said of the operation, which involved French special forces and equipment based at N'Djamena in Chad, including four Dassault-built Mirage 2000D fighters supported by two KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, with Rafale fighters based in France standing by on alert.
One Gazelle helicopter was downed during the air raid, said Adm. Edouard Guillaud, chief of staff of France's armed forces, and Lt. Damien Boiteux, commander of the helicopter unit, was killed, though it was unclear whether Boiteux was aboard the downed rotorcraft.
The air strikes occurred in tandem with the deployment of several hundred French soldiers to Bamako to assure the safety of France's 5,000 citizens in Mali.
Le Drian said Hollande will conduct a meeting of his defense team today at 3 pm Paris time to assess the situation in Mali.
“We will continue our activities as necessary,” Le Drian said, adding that France's intervention paved the way for UN, EU and African Union assistance in Mali. “Without French action it would have been difficult to do that.”